WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Friday announced two executive actions to try to strengthen federal background checks and prevent guns from ending up in the hands of mentally ill people who pose a danger to others.
The Department of Justice proposed a regulation to clarify who is prohibited from possessing a firearm for mental health reasons. Officials believe that will help states determine what information can be shared with the background-check system to keeps guns out of the hands of mentally ill people who are considered potentially violent.
In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services is proposing a regulation to loosen legal barriers that may prevent states from submitting information on the mentally ill to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. The NICS system is used to check the backgrounds of those who buy guns from a federally licensed gun dealer in order to ensure that they are not legally prohibited from owning a gun.
"The administration's two new executive actions will help ensure that better and more reliable information makes its way into the background check system," the White House said in a statement. "While the vast majority of Americans who experience a mental illness are not violent, in some cases when persons with a mental illness do not receive the treatment they need, the result can be tragedies such as homicide or suicide."
In recent years, several mass shootings have been linked to gunmen with a history of mental illness, including 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012; and Jared Loughner, who killed six people and injured 13 others, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., nearly three years ago in Tucson.
Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., Ms. Giffords' former district director, who was shot and injured in the same Tucson incident before being elected to Congress, praised President Barack Obama's actions for "going a long way to make the system better," but said congressional action is still needed to prevent felons and certain people with mental illness from getting guns. "Ultimately, we need legislation to expand the background check system to people who buy guns at gun shows and on the Internet," he said.
National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the organization would not comment "until we have a chance to review the actual language of these proposals."
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said her department's proposal would modify the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act to allow the disclosure of the identities of people prohibited by federal law from possessing a firearm because of mental health reasons. "Some states are currently underreporting or not reporting certain information" to the federal background check system, she said.
The Justice Department said it was clarifying the categories of people who cannot obtain a firearm, including those found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty because of a mental defect.
"We are taking an important, common-sense step to clarify the federal firearms regulations, which will strengthen our ability to keep dangerous weapons out of the wrong hands," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.